Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzadeh and Modernization of Persia

  March 29, 2021   Read time 2 min
Mirza Fath Ali Akhundzadeh and Modernization of Persia
Themes of civilization and reform, the need for constitutional recourse, the heritage of the ancient past versus decline in the present, and the critique of conservatives’ obstacles to modernity all laid the foundations of the constitutional discourse.

Akhundzadeh internalized the positivist critique of Islam and its incompatibility with the demands of the modern world. In fictional correspondence dated 1863 between Kamal al-Dowleh, an Iranian skeptic writing from Tabriz, and his interlocutor, an Indian Shia prince residing in the holy cities of southern Iraq, Akhundzadeh offered a daring criticism of Shia beliefs and institutions. He held Islam, its scripture and doctrine, and more pointedly, the Shi‘i beliefs and teachings responsible for Iran’s current state of affairs and the root cause of the decline of the Persian civilization. In Voltairean fashion he ridiculed the idea of divine inspiration, the tales in the Qur’an, and the force of bigotry and unreason that the Islamic religion and the disastrous Arab conquest of Iran had unleashed on his countrymen. Like Kermani, he also lamented the loss of the great civilization of pre-Islamic Iran. Drawing historical and sociological comparisons with his own time, he chastised Islam for its antirational and unenlightened principals, including the ignorance, arrogance, and superstitions of the religious authorities and for their condoning of slavery, torture, and the mistreatment of women. With lesser intensity he also held the Qajar state responsible for corruption and mismanagement, and he attacked the undeserved privileges of the elite. Yet in his discourse of decline, Akhundzadeh, who was a great admirer of Russian high culture, barely ever held the European powers accountable for their part. For him, as for Malkom and most other reformers of the nineteenth century, the major sources of evil were domestic rather than geopolitical. European imperial rivalry barely drew his attention, and he had little to say about colonial ambitions all over the globe. One can almost read between the lines a cold reality that echoed the message of the old Persian “mirror” literature: might is right. If Iran was disempowered and subdued by the West, it was not the West’s fault; instead, Iranians, and Muslims in general, had failed to cast aside their threadbare cultural and religious values and embrace Western civilization. Movements of indigenous reform within Shi‘ism, too, were denounced by Akhundzadeh. Although he condemned the persecution of the Babis, still fresh in his mind, as barbaric, he treated the message of the Babis and the Shaykhis as merely a reiteration of Shi‘i superstitions and yet another obstacle to the march toward civilization.